Monday, September 10, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Maintenance to Ministry

(A sermon based on Luke 10:25-37)

[Fourth in a series]

You will recall that we are involved in a series of sermons on “A Vision for the Church.” My goal in these sermons is, on the basis of the biblical texts employed, to lead us to evaluate where we are as a church and to envision where we need to go as a church. We have previously talked about moving beyond potential to productivity, moving beyond duty to desire, and moving beyond presence to participation. Now I want to talk about moving beyond maintenance to ministry.

Really, everything that we are talking about boils down to one essential question: what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? The church is made up of the individual disciples within it and thus it is concerned about corporate as well as individual discipleship. Today’s text writes this central question in large letters for us, for the lawyer asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” To inherit eternal life is to live one’s life as a faithful disciple of Jesus. To ask “how can we move beyond maintenance to ministry?” is to ask “how can we be faithful disciples of Christ?”

There is a vital connection between the sermons of last week and this week. We talked last week about moving beyond mere presence in worship to active participation in worship. We said that just being present in church is not the same thing as worshipping; we must be actively involved in the offering of praise to God. But we also said that even such active offering of praise does not constitute true worship. Rather, we said, true worship means the giving of our lives to God out in the world. True worship means to behave properly toward our fellow people because we have a deep and real relationship with God.

The kind of ministry about which we are talking today is the same thing as our true worship in the world. Such ministry is beautifully described in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus offered in response to the question from the lawyer about eternal life. Jesus asked him in turn what the Bible said about his question and the man answered quite properly by citing the “great commandment,” the last part of which said that you are to “love your neighbor as your love yourself.” Jesus told him to do what his Bible had taught him and he would have the life that he sought.

At this point we learn something about this religious fellow that is true of many religious persons and of many churches: he was an escapist. We had already suspected it, perhaps, because of his question about eternal life. Was he thinking of life after death, of what we sometimes call “everlasting life?” Such life is a benefit of discipleship but it is not the immediate focus of legitimate discipleship. We anticipate everlasting life but to center on it can indicate that we want to escape the demands and even the opportunities of this life. Now, though, we learn for sure that this lawyer is an escapist because he wants to know who his neighbor is. As has been pointed out, the question “implies that there can be a non-neighbour” [Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1970), p. 225, cited by both I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 447 and Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), p. 220]. The questioner wanted to place limitations on God’s demands on his life. Specifically, he wanted to place limits on those whom he must love.

Out of this situation sprang the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite in the story, who were both religious professionals, were like the lawyer; they wanted to avoid the responsibility of responding in love to the needs of another human being. The possible reasons might prove illuminating to us.

Perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a fear of becoming involved in his pain. In other words, maybe they wanted to maintain their safety and comfort. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was notorious for its danger; criminal ambush was easy. If this man had been beaten up by robbers, they might still be nearby! To help was risky.

Sometimes Christians and churches avoid becoming involved in the needs of hurting people because we are afraid of getting hurt ourselves. It can be a painful thing to attempt to help others in their hurts. It is uncomfortable, it is inconvenient, and it can even be dangerous. We often prefer to maintain ourselves rather than to risk ourselves. But does that excuse us? Ought we not move from maintenance to ministry?

Or, perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a willingness to put posturing before practice. Perhaps they were on their way to the temple to serve (that was their job, after all). Maybe they did not have time to stop and help the injured man because they were on their way to church. Or maybe they thought the man was dead and to touch him would render them ritually unclean to perform their duties. Regardless, they may have been putting the ritual of religion and the posturing that can accompany it ahead of the practice of their faith. They were more interested in maintaining their “purity” than they were in helping someone in need.

Does not this sometimes happen to the church? We become very interested in maintaining what we have. The rituals, the habitual forms of doing things, the public image we have—all of these can lead us to avoid the ministry of the nitty-gritty that is before us out there in the world where people live, breath, hurt, and die. I am not saying that we are supposed to give up what we do in terms of corporate worship and fellowship but I am saying that they should lead to ministry. Can we move from maintenance to ministry?

The most likely and most troubling scenario is that perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a lack of compassion (Cf. the discussion of Jones, Teaching, pp. 224-226). Maybe they just did not care enough about the man to help him. In that case, they were coldly callous in their indifference. If such was the motivation for their avoidance, it strikes at the very heart of their religion. How can one be a person of God and not be compassionate? How could one be a priest or Levite and not care about people? How can one be a Christian, how can a church be a church, and not care about folks?

Unless we are careful, though, Christians and churches can come to care more about maintaining what they have and what they are than about reaching out to hurting, needy people in Jesus’ name.

I know that in many ways our church does move beyond maintenance to ministry. But I also know that we must always keep our attention on showing compassion and loving others in Jesus’ name. How can we move farther beyond maintenance to ministry?

First, we should let the Good Samaritan be our example. He was a neighbor to the injured man in very practical but very sacrificial ways. Someone has said, “Compassion is Christianity in overalls (Jones, Teaching, p. 231).” We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. We must keep our eyes open to the hurting people around us and give of ourselves to help. We must be neighbors to those here in our city and area and around the world. We must realize that modern technology and communication have created a situation in which the world is our community. We must find ways to reach out in big ways to a big world [Cf. the discussion of Hal Missourie Warheim, “The Samaritan Strategy: A Critique,” Pulpit Digest (January/February, 1990), 15-21].

Second, each one of us should “let it begin in me” (phrase borrowed from B. B. McKinney’s hymn “Lord, Send a Revival). That is, we can move beyond maintenance to ministry in our church when we begin to do so in our individual lives. The parable is about one Samaritan helping one injured man whom he found alongside one road. Are we sensitive to those whom we meet on our journey? Do we help them when we find them?

Third, we should find creative ways as a church to minister to the needs of people. I take very seriously the truths that each one of us who is a Christian is a child of God with access to his Holy Spirit and with ability to study our Bibles and to listen for God’s voice. Each one of you has your own good ideas. We need to hear them. As you think of ways in which we can creatively and effectively reach out to the hurting people of our community and our world, share them! Work at getting them started! Help us to move beyond maintenance to ministry!

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